Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide ended the US’ denial of it

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the ongoing conflict at the Ukraine/Russia border, February 15, 2022 (Official White House photo by Cameron Smith/Flickr)

On April 24th last year, President Biden officially recognized the Armenian Genocide. Last year’s announcement constituted an important reversal of decades of US complicity in Turkey’s denial of the Genocide. In the wake of Biden’s statement, commentators highlighted its importance in terms of what it said about the state (read: nadir) of US-Turkish relations and about Biden’s commitment to a moral foreign policy. While such analyses captured central factors behind this long-resisted official acknowledgment, its most important function was to end the US’ own denial of the Armenian Genocide. 

Turkey has long denied both the nature of the Genocide and the role of Ottoman officials in orchestrating and executing the World War I-era atrocities. This involved substantial efforts to enjoin US officials in suppressing references to the organized deportation and massacres of Ottoman Armenian (and other non-Muslim) citizens in the context of the war. In 1923, soon-to-be-Turkish negotiators in Lausanne refused to allow references to the massacres in the peace treaty that was being negotiated. In the mid-1930s, Turkey enlisted the help of the US State Department in successfully preventing the making of a Hollywood film about the resistance and international rescue of an Armenian community during the Genocide. In the 1960s, Turkish officials called on the State Department to stop a California community’s plan to erect a monument to the Genocide.

Starting in the early 1980s, as part of a broad effort by Turkish officials to better articulate and defend Turkey’s official position on the “Armenian question,” US involvement in Turkey’s denial dramatically increased. With the help of US lobbying firms, Turkey enlisted the active support of the State Department, Department of Defense and the White House in successfully opposing a series of Congressional resolutions that would have recognized the Armenian Genocide. 

Since the mid-1970s, such resolutions have been repeatedly proposed in both houses of Congress. Until 2019, no resolution managed to pass both houses of Congress. A key reason is that, when such resolutions were introduced and considered, the US State Department sought to reassure Turkish officials that it opposed their passage, and more surprisingly, it helped fight them. In 2000, President Clinton even personally intervened to prevent the passage of such a resolution. 

Additionally, every year since the mid-1990s, the US President has made a statement commemorating the Genocide on April 24, but until last year, the statements had assiduously avoided using the term that most appropriately and accurately described what they were purporting to commemorate: genocide. President Obama, in an apparent attempt to signal that he viewed the Genocide as such without using the term, deployed the Armenian phrase Medz Yeghern (“Great Catastrophe”). Such rhetorical adaptations mirror Turkey’s own evolving effort to craft a message that resonates with international normative expectations but rejects the label genocide.

While the US’ long-standing “complicity” in Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide was noted in passing by others, its ending deserves to be singled out and highlighted as arguably the most important implication of President Biden’s shift to acknowledging the Genocide as such.

Of course, in publicly recognizing and naming dark parts of other countries’ pasts, Biden invites charges of hypocrisy, given the US’ failure to fully or properly reckon with its own dark pasts, which include slavery, institutionalized racism and the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. But the answer to the charge that other historic wrongs have not been acknowledged should not be the silencing, forgetting and denial of all dark pasts. Rather, Biden’s historic acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide should galvanize much-needed truth-seeking and truth-telling in the US. The final paragraph of Biden’s 2021 statement looked “to the future—toward the world that we wish to build for our children” and closed with the goal of “healing and reconciliation for all the people of the world.” Not long after recognizing the Armenian Genocide, President Biden took a step in this direction by designating Juneteenth a national holiday. Another key opportunity lies in H.R. 40, which proposes the creation of a commission to “study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans.” This proposed bill – a version of which was first introduced in 1989 – was approved by the House Committee on the Judiciary in a historic vote last April, but the House has taken no further action on the bill and the Senate Judiciary Committee has not taken action on a related bill. Given President Biden’s expressed support for the bill and stated commitment to racial justice, perhaps Biden’s long-awaited acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide can serve as a catalyst for greater attention to and more concrete steps toward the acknowledgment of and redress for the US’ own dark pasts.

Jennifer M. Dixon

Jennifer M. Dixon

Jennifer M. Dixon is an associate professor of political science at Villanova University and the author of Dark Pasts: Changing the State’s Story in Turkey and Japan (Cornell University Press, 2018).
Jennifer M. Dixon

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  1. An important context for President Biden’s recognition last April 24th was his decision, made within hours of his Armenian Genocide statement, to greenlight US military aid to Azerbaijan – a country hellbent on completing this crime. – Aram Hamparian

  2. Biden’s currently in my adopted Seattle giving a speech. He really needs to do more to decarbonize the country (the Build Back Better program never went far enough).

  3. Western officials have been blowing smoke up our collective butts for well over one hundreds years now, and Armenians still refuse to wake up…

    • Yeah they have… but what’s more important is, as if your decrepit Turk-loving “Mother Russia” hasn’t…

      In fact your decrepit Turk-loving “Mother Russia” has actually done a lot worse to Armenia for a century, starting with arming Ataturk to invade and conquer Armenia together and divide it between two decrepit nations of primitive minded thugs, instead of letting Armenia form as a viable nation like all other nations did.

      A century later, including a repeat in 2020, all of Armenia’s collective suffering is not a result of “western officials blowing smoke up our collective butts”, but a result of the actions taken by your decrepit Turk-loving “Mother Russia”.

    • I’m sorry, but anyone with the name “Russia is Armenia’s enemy” doesn’t sound like someone rational or informed.
      By the way, your information is totally incorrect.
      A cringeworthy username paired with historical illiteracy, LOL.

    • If you think I’m irrational or ill-informed, you are welcomed to refute the points that I make, except it seems you and the rest of you “Lenin Papik was the best” crowd can’t seem to be able to present rational arguments as to how “Russia is Armenia’s best friend and ally”.

      You know what’s really cringe? Armenians who continue to pay homage to “Lenin Papik” after they just witnessed Russia, our “ally”, make deals with Azeris and Turks, destroyed Armenia’s interests and security by forcing Armenia to hand over territories without even fighting for it, and blatantly violating Armenia’s sovereignty, imposing economic corridors to benefit Turks and Azeris.

      No one with more than a brain cell inside their heads believes that Armenia should try to abandon Russia, if Russia had even a rationally pro-Armenia position in the region. Instead what we got was 70 years of cultural decline, followed by 30 years of pro-Azeri policy to the detriment of Armenia. The real blame is of course on the ignorant Armenian of Yerevan, but then again, they are not there to build a nation for the Armenian nation and people, but act as gate-keepers for Russia.

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